It would be easy to go on for days about the millions of merits of The General, from its crisp photography to its Matthew Brady compositions to its immaculate eye for accurate historical detail to Keaton's mastery of every aspect of filmmaking, but it's easier to sum it up this way: it's hilarious, and it holds up.
When it comes to the silent comedies, Keaton was the funniest. Sure, Lloyd and Chaplin placed, but Lloyd's ostentatious physicality and Chaplin's downright maudlin pathos and nostalgia really hurt their films' chances of enduring appeal. But Keaton had understatement, and Keaton had a keen, almost prophetic sense in knowing that his jokes would still be funny 80 years later. And The General is his comedy masterpiece, and it truthfully gets funnier every time.
Buster Keaton plays Johnnie Gray, an engineer on the Western and Atlantic Railroad (whose train is called The General). The Civil War breaks out, and when the army won't take him for reasons he can't understand, his girlfriend refuses to speak to him. A year later, his train is hijacked by some Northern spies and gives chase--alone. He also doesn't realize that they coincidentally took his girlfriend hostage when they stole the train. He finally makes it deep into enemy territory, accidentally sees and rescues his girlfriend, and hatches a plan to steal back his train and warn the South of the coming attack. Of course, he succeeds, and admirably, but it would be shameful for me to explain just how and how well.
This isn't comedy delivered with a crowbar and a laugh track. It doesn't operate on the buildup-punchline scheme. It relies on subtlety and perfect timing, and it relies on Keaton's stoic face in the midst of any obstacle, and his character's ongoing knack for escaping any situation with accidental panache and quick-witted flair. The well-discussed "Keatonesque hand of fate" is operating full-time here, and half of the fun of the movie is getting to see the good guy beat the bad guys. The jokes are satisfying because they don't often rely on dark humor or satire which, while legitimate forms of comedy, always leave one feeling empty. Here, the comedy revolves around ingenious ways to escape impossible predicaments. So each joke works on two levels; it makes you feel good because of the direction the story's going, and it's a legitimately funny gag. Comedy theorists still wonder why no one can write comedy quite this way and this well anymore.
Rather than wax on about the perfections of the plot, the characterizations, and the ballet-like precision with which the jokes are executed (and the fact that all of the train chase shots, which are most of the movie, are filmed on actual trains), I'll refer you to the imdb.com
page and the filmsite.org
I could list funny scenes, but I'd be listing the whole movie. Really.
The General is truly one of the world's greatest cinema masterpieces, in any language, in any genre. It has made Sight And Sound's listing of the 10 greatest films ever made (any genre, any language) several times. The fact is, this is Keaton's funniest, this is the silents' funniest, and as far as I'm concerned, it's darn close to all of cinema's funniest. It holds up, and it works.
More than five stars out of five.